NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two of the three teams from the Ohio Valley Conference who have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament will square off on Saturday night in the conference championship.
The winner will advance to their first-ever NCAA Tournament, and will get to experience the joys of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday as a part of the field of 68.
Inside the Nashville Municipal Auditorium on Saturday night at 8:00pm EST, the Jacksonville State Gamecocks will take on the regular season West Division leaders, the UT-Martin Skyhawks. It’s a slightly unexpected final pairing, as the Gamecocks eliminated the top-seeded Belmont Bruins in the semifinals.
Both teams have been playing some of their basketball at the right time. But, outside of the hardcore basketball fan, many won’t know much about the two teams taking part in the finale.
Here’s what you need to know about both teams heading into Saturday’s championship contest.
During the regular season, the teams met just once. On the Skyhawks’ home court, the Gamecocks went in and came out with an 18-point victory, 90-72.
Following their success last season, UT-Martin went 10-6 this year during Ohio Valley Conference play, taking home the regular season West Division crown. They notched wins over the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles, Murray State Racers, and a pair over last season’s OVC tournament champions, the Austin Peay Governors.
On offense, they are one of the more efficient teams in the conference. The Skyhawks have averaged a shade under 78 points per contest, good for the 73rd-best mark in the country. As a team, they average 38 rebounds per game, which is 71st in the nation.
In the semi-finals, the Skyhawks took town the Murray State Racers for the second straight contest, 73-67. They also closed out the regular season with a win over Murray State to lock up the two-seed in the conference tournament.
At 21-11, the Skyhawks have the second-best overall record in the country, trailing only Belmont. After advancing to the Second Round of the 2016 CollegeInsider.Com Tournament, the Skyhawks have their sights set on advancing to their first-ever NCAA Tournament.
On Saturday in the conference tournament finale, the Skyhawks will be in tough against a Jacksonville State team who will also be looking to secure their first trip to the Big Dance.
Jacksonville State came into the conference tournament with the third-best record in the East Division, and were awarded the fourth-seed in the field due to holding the tiebreaker over the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks. Both teams finished the regular season with 9-7 records in conference play, but the Gamecocks won the only meeting between the two schools, 74-62.
The offense for the Gamecocks isn’t as prolific as the Skyhawks. Jacksonville State ranks 259th in the country in terms of scoring offense, averaging 69.8 points per contest. However, on the defensive end, they’re only allowing 68.0 points per contest, which ranks 70th in the nation.
While they don’t score a lot, they don’t allow for their opponents to score much either. They have held opponents to 60 or fewer points on nine occasions this season, including the post-season, going a combined 8-1 in those games.
After knocking off Southeast Missouri State and Belmont to reach the conference tournament finals, the momentum seems to be on the side of the Gamecocks. Having knocked two of the top teams in the conference, their confidence is through the roof.
Players to Watch
UT-Martin Skyhawks: Jacolby Mobley (Senior Guard)
18.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.3 apg
In the final two regular season games, Mobley averaged 30.5 points in a pair of wins. While he was held in check in the semifinal win over Murray State (seven points), the senior is a threat to go off at any given time. Mobley has scored in double figures on 22 occasions, including a pair of 30+ point performances. He is a strong shooter from three point range (37.0%), and if he can get hot from distance, then the Skyhawks will be in great shape.
Jacksonville State Gamecocks: Malcolm Drumwright (Junior Guard)
12.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.9 apg
While Drumwright isn’t known as a true scoring guard, he comes into Saturday night playing some of his best basketball of the season. He has scored in double figures in six of his last seven outings, including a season-high 25 points in a loss to Tennessee Tech. Drumwright has great court vision, and is a great facilitator and ball distributor. His ability to affect the game in multiple areas has the Gamecocks knocking on the door of the Big Dance.
Both teams rely on depth and balance on both ends of the floor. The Skyhawks and Gamecocks both have four players averaging double-digit points per game this season, giving their respective coaches confidence in their rotation.
Fans can expect a close game down in Nashville this evening between a pair of teams who will both leave it all on the floor in the hopes of reaching the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
This. Is. March.
– T. Bennett